Western Short Story
Two riders, caught by the late sun's rays on prairie grass and scattered scrub growth, came up out of a minor swale, and one of the riders held his hand up and cocked his head while bringing his mount to a stop. The angled sun bounced and ran on the grass, hot for most of the day, but the halted rider listened closer than he looked at the spread of the land, his attention seemingly acute, discrete, particular.
At immediate glance the two showed the trail and the drive on their clothes, "Texas-smear" some of them called it, that noticeable, run-down, heavily-worn, ordinary mess that cowmen build up in their duds and broadly spread the air with richness well-earned. Pant seats shined or shone through, knees showed ravage of some fierce determination and ruin, elbows on warm days offered views close to bone, shirts gave grave hints of a seamstress shortage right through a whole passel of cow hands 12 hours or more in the saddle in their working day.
Of course, prettiness and presentation were not their key cards in the deal.
One look gave quick rewards.
A gray, worn sombrero sat high on Parker Hudson's head the way a rider moves the sweat band line to a different level; and his checkered shirt was day-damp. He motioned to the other rider, who might have been a brother, but whose attention span was in some stage of disregard.
"You hear that, Jack, that sweet song like it's just hangin' in the air for us to hear." Parker Hudson, Parkie to all the trail hands new and old, held his hand out for silence and attention, and Jack Spurk sat his saddle stiff as a statue, sort of whispering, "Is that the warbler you been talkin' about, Parkie, like you can't hardly hear him? He off in that brush yonder?"
"Yup, he knows the herd's comin' and lettin' all the others in on it. The wagon'll be here soon and we best find some water for Stover to cook with. He was low this mornin'." He cocked his head again, again hearing the prairie warbler singing his light notes like he was struggling to get them out of his throat. "He's about as pretty as a bunch of flowers," he added, "if you ever get a chance to catch sight of him."
At that exact moment, Parkie saw the distant flash in the low brush, no bodily silhouette of a shooter, and dove to knock Spurk off his saddle. They hit the ground as a rifle slug pounded through small shrub behind them. Curses broke the evening silence as the echoes of rifle and warbler and then the curses faded in a distance race.
Each man had his pistol in hand and scoured the far area where the shot had been fired. Spurk, whose rifle had fallen from its sheath, also had the rifle in his other hand when he said, "I suppose that's the welcome you were talkin' about last night when those night owls was whompin' near us."
"Stark doesn't want anybody near his land and seems willin' to shoot or scare us off. We'll face him today or tomorrow, but the boss won't like us gettin' shot at, even if it was a warnin' shot, low and off to the north of us."
Spurk, prone but at full alert, the rifle cradled and ready for action, said, "I was thinkin' about the great night owl when you were talkin' about Stark and the bird at the same time, that low-pitched but loud ho-ho-hoo hoo hoo we kept hearin' from them trees back there. Never listened to it before, just heard it lazy-like like never anythin' important."
"Stark'll kill somebody before he's through playin' for keeps. But if we keep payin' attention to the birds, they'll let us know whats goin' on. Always know before us what's happenin' out there on the prairie, in the brush. They come sly as foxes and prairie dogs, anythin' with concern for hawks 'n' eagles."
"You been sayin' stuff like that ever since we met up, Parkie. You knew that shot was comin' our way, didn't you?"
"I was lookin' for it, all's I can say. You can bet it's not the last thing we'll hear from Stark."
The sound of horse hoofs came to them from a long way off before the trail boss, Kicker Jergens, pulled his reins tight."Somebody shootin' at you boys? I heard one shot. You boys didn't shoot back?"
Anger sat on his face like a boot print in the mud, and made its way into a questioning shrug absolutely pertaining to courage, good sense, and normal pay-back regardless of the outcome.
Parkie said, "Nothin' to shoot at, Kicker. Saw nothin' and nobody." He smiled as he said, "A little bird told me to duck, and Spurk and I ducked at the same time."
"You been sellin' that stuff all the time I've known you, Parkie. Gotta be three years now." Jergens was not complaining, but was calculating how long he'd known Parker Hudson, in a drive almost three years to the day when the new man came on the scene and talk around campfires settled in as a common discussion for trail hands willing to listen what they always knew in some form, but never delved into for their own interests, stuff about birds as common as curses.
"You have to admit, Kicker, some of them are like army buglers doin' their job loud and clear. Could be wavin' flags far as we're concerned when they sing what they're sayin.'. This was a damned pretty song me and Jack heard a bit ago. Yanked us right off the saddles." He showed a shade of new dust on his elbow as testimony of the encounter.
Jergens practically stood in the stirrups as he looked around, but mostly toward the northwest ... where Stark's ranch the length of two valleys spread like butterfly wings, with a small rocky mount separating the wings. His eyes sought hiding places, certain elevations in the landfall, places that would hold his attention, showing his tendency to apprise himself of all sources of possible discouragement ... as the herd owner might have termed it
Still upright, no weapon to hand, he said, "We're talkin' to Stark inside the hour, 'cause we're goin' past his place and not through it, and he damned well knows it. The boss told him last month when they had a fallin' out at cards back at Herby's Hideout 'n' Gin Hole. Said he laid it right on the line so there'd be no mistakes about our move one way or the other. He'll hide Stark where the dogs can't find him anythin' happens to one of his men, meanin' you two, too."
Kicker Jergens nodded and said, "Four abreast, mounted and riding and we're gonna visit Stark right soon. Let's go."
In part it was a challenge ride, none of them except Jack thinking there'd be another shot fired their way from Stark or any of his hands. And the rest of the foursome riding spritely and as if they could start a war in a second's breath, Jergens all ready leaning into what was coming to him, the herd he was working for, holding together as long as he could, make in the end the best pay-off ... and protect his boss and his crew with every wish, whim and wince.
All those tendencies and responsibilities were easily noted and broadcast about his person. Word among some of the crew was that the owner, Kurt Lastwick, had picked Kicker out of a bunch of men at a crowded bar in Texas; almost looks alone doing the job for him until some testy jostling was noted, and halted, by Jergens in one quick hurry, with a rock-solid single punch returned to the jostler's roundhouse right almost catching him on the jaw. Jergens' facial sculpture was as much a badge of his past and current job, the way it folded in wrinkles and deep facial remarks sitting under his hat brim, and the way it was viewed by new hands, odd townsfolk, stragglers met en route on the wide prairie. Much of that face said, "I've done about all you can imagine, so hands off me and all my responsible property, my boys, my cows, my horses ... or else damnation comes calling on you."
Behind them, more than 100 miles south, near the Oklahoma border, three adventurous rustlers now graced the mounded earth of East Texas. It was not the lone incident on this drive, but was the first one and had been cleared up in short order, to everyone's satisfaction, including Kurt Lastwick's, whose admiration, spreading in monstrous admiration, had first admitted, "That punch of Kicker's in the bar would have knocked down a gray gorilla or a red rhino but it did punish and push a wise-mouth into the middle of next week."
For the third time in as many nights, on the night before, Kicker Jergens told the boys not on watch about Jeremy Stark and his way in the world. "He don't trust God, the Cloth or his own Momma when it comes what he's stamped as his own, no matter who else thinks the lines do or don't separate one's place from another's place.